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Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Invasion

I love aliens. It’s no secret. They are the hotness, especially Hugh Jackman. Oh, I know. He’s not really an alien since he lives in Australia most of the time, so that makes him a visitor to these shores. I guess he would only be considered an “alien” if came here to mow your lawn or trim your hedges for minimum wage instead of making movies for millions of dollars. Granted, if I had millions of dollars I’d be happy to pay him to trim my hedge any time, but then he’d still be rich and nobody would think of him as an alien, not that anyone really does now. The same is true with Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman. He’s British and she’s another Aussie, but because they come here with designer bags, entourages, and sacks full of cash, nobody says “Damned aliens, taking away jobs from REAL Americans!” when they sign on to play American roles in American made movies. Of course, it helps that they speak English too. I doubt George W. would have been too happy if Gael Garcia Bernal showed up on screen playing Tom Hank’s role as the quintessential American heroic stereotype in Forrest Gump, complete with his Spanish accent. Actually, if that had happened the movie would have tanked and the wall between the U.S. and Mexico would have gone up seven years ago and been at least twenty feet high. Let’s face it. Americans only love their aliens when they come bursting out of chests and are slimy, scaly, and have big teeth or claws. They can’t have Spanish accents. Except for that last part, and the bursting out of chests, they’d love my housekeeper Consuela, but that’s for another day. This is about aliens of another kind.

Ironically, The Invasion, this week’s new opening at the Essex Cinemas, stars that above-mentioned Nicole Kidman (The Golden Compass) as Carol Bennell, a newly-divorced psychiatrist who lives in Georgetown with her young son Oliver (Jackson Bond; Dead of Winter). What Carol doesn’t realize is that her life is really a broadly painted remake of 1993’s Body Snatchers, which was a poorly done retelling of 1978’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which was a more direct clone of 1956’s original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, based on a Collier’s Magazine serial by Jack Finney.

If she was aware, she’d know from the outset that the sudden upswing of her clients coming in with increased anxiety about changes in their loved ones’ behavior was not treatable by simple medication changes. These changes in their family members are real, caused by an organism brought back from space and flung across the country while attached to the debris of an exploding space shuttle on re-entry.

Once the microscopic organism finds its way to Earth, it quickly metabolizes into a parasite that affixes itself to parts of the human blood cell and integrates into them.
Essentially, the cells become theirs, and are filled with their energy, their intelligence, their characteristics, and their memories while keeping those of the original host. Here is where The Invasion differs from its previous incarnations. In the earlier versions, fully-reconstituted aliens would have to plant giant spores within close proximity to the people they wanted to replicate. While they slept the pods would regenerate the exact bodies of the “host” human and then wake-up fresh and ready to live the others’ lives. As for the humans? They’d die in the process and presumably be disposed of off-screen. That was never a part of the story. Maybe it is what inspired Soylent Green, but that’s a different matter indeed.

Anyway, this time around poor Carol is mostly concerned with keeping Oliver safe, but first she has to retrieve him from her ex-husband Tucker (Jeremy Northam; HBO’s “The Tudors”), who is one of the first to be overtaken by the alien virus. Getting him back is easier said than done, naturally, or it would make for a short movie. Besides the usual cat-and-mouse games and the perfunctory car chase sequences, things are complicated by the realization on both sides of the fight that young Oliver is immune to the transmutation process, and if he is immune there will be others as well. More importantly, the CDC needs desperately to know why Oliver is immune before he is killed by the aliens who see anyone not of their kind as disposable.

Aiding Carol in her quest is her colleague and would-be lover, Ben Driscoll (Daniel Craig; Casino Royale), who just happens to be an immuno-biologist conveniently attached to the CDC. Isn’t it nice when you know just the right people for the job and can get them at a moment’s notice? It takes me four days to get a plumber.

The trouble with this version of the story is that in our times it has become harder and harder to see what the horror is in what the aliens say they are here to do. In the 1956 version American homes were just beginning to have televisions in their homes and the majority of their news came from the
daily papers, radio, or even newsreels at the local movie theaters. Morals and ideals were strict and uniformly conservative but young people were told that the country was a place of great opportunity and the “American Dream” could be whatever they conceived it to be. The only thing standing between them and that “Dream” was communism, the deadly threat America could face at any moment. News pictures showed graven images of downtrodden Russian women in ragged coats standing for hours on bread lines waiting for the merest morsels of food for their families. This was the image of communism, and the pundits of those times turned Invasion of the Body Snatchers into a hit playing on these same fears, equating the take over of the American way of life by these soulless creatures as a fictional equivalent to what the Cold War threatened.

In 1978, the remake of the same name played on similar fears stoked by the almost sixteen year old war in Vietnam that had ended three years earlier. The American people were bitter, tired and angry at our own government by then. The Watergate scandal had broken, Nixon had resigned in disgrace, Ford had pardoned him against the peoples’ will, and this Invasion of the Body Snatchers played on people’s doubts about who they could trust even in their own lives. Our government officials, we had always been told, were the trustworthy guardians meant to protect us and keep us safe by always telling us the truth. Now, America awoke realizing it couldn’t trust its own highest officials, going all the way to the White House, and if you couldn’t trust the President how could you necessarily trust your next door neighbor or even your husband?

By 1993, Body Snatchers placed the suspicions directly with the American military just as the actual U.S. troops were involved in yet another war, the first Iraqi War, which placed troops in the Middle East and where stories of men returning home “changed” were showing up all over the media. PTSD was a new conceit to a lot of people back then, but the fear of many an audience member could not be denied. Who wanted to see a family member turn into an “empty vessel” of what he or she had been?

Those films hit at times when the American spirit was alive and palatable. Nowadays, it is harder to see what that is supposed to feel like, and so The Invasion suffers by presenting us with an enemy that is daring to take something away that doesn’t look all that appealing, and replace it with… peace? Is that such a bad thing? The reconstituted Tucker explains to Carol that they will bring world peace and stop the Iraq War, the genocide in Darfur, and a host of other conflicts. He also questions how her own profession is not all that different in what they (the aliens) can offer as she affects peoples’ minds by prescribing them pills like Valium and Ritalin to affect their behavior. He does have a good point there. I’ll bet if he promised to eliminate Tom Cruise movies as part of the deal she would have folded in a second.

So I will say that
The Invasion does have enough edge-of-your-seat moments necessary to satisfy the average teen viewer and those who haven’t seen the more cerebral 1979 version, which is far superior in tension. One thing both have in common is the presence of Veronica Cartwright, who plays a rightfully worried patient of Dr. Bennell in this one just as she worried about hubby Jeff Goldblum in Invasion of the Body Snatchers 22 years ago. It’s always a treat when filmmakers take the time to pay homage to their earlier source material and what better way than to include one of the cast members from that work?

Kidman, as always, gives a spot-on performance while Craig seems hardly involved in many of his scenes. The real star though is eleven-year-old Jackson Bond, who outshines both of the adult stars in his heavy-duty role that requires a lot of emotion. He is as good a reason as any to see
The Invasion.

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